Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Where Power Is Absolute": Royalist Politics and the Improved Landscape in a Poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Where Power Is Absolute": Royalist Politics and the Improved Landscape in a Poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

Article excerpt

Land and trees carry pronounced political weight in the poetry of Anne Finch, who entered the English literary canon as a "nature poet," but has only recently been recognized as a significant participant in political debates regarding the so-called Glorious Revolution and its aftermath. (1) The poem "Upon My Lord Winchilsea's Converting the Mount in His Garden to a Terras" (c. 1703; hereafter, "Upon My Lord Winchilsea") provides an intriguing instance of Finch's politically inflected representations of the natural environment, particularly for the ways in which it situates the land and trees of the Finch family estate within the history of England's transition from restored monarchical order to the factionalism exacerbated by the Revolution Settlement. Broadly speaking, principles of land ownership and management had been at the crux of debates about Stuart legitimacy since the reign of Charles I, whose disputed taxation policies were seen by Parliamentarians as a threat to individual liberty and property rights. Arguments over the intricacies of property ownership became even more vexed when the Commonwealth confiscated many Royalists' lands and harvested their trees for use in shipbuilding for overseas engagements. (2) During this period, the political and economic dimensions of land ownership often express themselves by moralizing the methods of a landlord's estate management; moral stewardship of a family estate becomes an increasingly contested political virtue to which both Whigs and Tories lay claim in their efforts to dominate the political scene. Typically infused with moral righteousness, representations of natural harmony as evidence of political legitimacy permeate literature as far back as Horace and Virgil, who provide the poetic precedents for much pastoral and country-house poetry of early modern England--genres from which Finch borrows in this poem. However, the degree to which opposing interests struggle to own naturalness (and nature) increases dramatically over the course of the seventeenth century. Indeed, a "cult of harmonizing power," in James Turner's apt phrase, emanated from the Stuart Court and "appear[ed] in the land itself, the national landscape," such that "politics [was] reduced to questions of land, and rural matters [were] presented in political terms." (3)

In the context of the struggle to own the natural, then, much can be made of the fact that Finch's poem reaches its dramatic climax during a moment of retrospection back to a time when her father-in-law cut down a grove of oak trees in order to enhance the view from a mount he had had built in his garden. A brief and violent moment in an otherwise harmonious scene of "smooth delight" and "prolifick ground," this act resonates with debates that link resource management and political legitimacy. (4) A proper moral steward would not waste a precious grove of trees merely to increase his aesthetic enjoyment, especially when doing so provokes despair and unrest in his servants; one might conclude that such a lord is not worthy to rule. (5)

In a century when deforestation was a grave concern for both Royalists and Parliamentarians, chopping down trees--especially oaks--became a dangerous and potentially incendiary act that threatened to incite popular revolt. (6) A lord, whether partial to Parliament or King, would understand the need to consider the peasantry when making landscaping decisions; he would treat them generously and respect their dependence upon the land, or he would disregard their interests and be prepared to quash their resistance to his decisions. As we will see, Finch subtly intimates her sympathy for the estate's laborers by indicating that their attachment to the grove inspires them to disobey their Lord's command to fell the trees. Such solidarity with labor is fleeting in the poem. However, it substantiates the claim that enables my argument: Finch judges authority according to how it manages its land, and whether it rightly preserves the land's multi-layered value. …

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